by Tony Dayoub
Sometimes our intellectual sophistication can get in the way of enjoying an entertaining film on the uncomplicated level of "pure cinema." This conflict is more pronounced when a movie with a tinge of social realism could be tagged as profoundly naive, as is the case of Criterion's Blu-ray release this week, Black Orpheus (Orfeu negro). However, reframe the film as a musical, one driven by the burgeoning sounds of the Bossa nova and samba, and one's perspective on Black Orpheus might shift rather mightily.
Here in the U.S., musicals of the time were in a state of flux. They were evolving from some of the lighter, stagey, Freed-era productions to darker ones like A Star is Born (1954). Black Orpheus predates some of the grittier musical films Americans would make popular later, West Side Story (1961), Cabaret (1972), films which at least addressed race, class, and sexuality in ways Singin' in the Rain (1952) never did (nor could). In France, Black Orpheus' release even precedes the U.S. release of Otto Preminger's Porgy and Bess (also with an all-black cast) by a 12 days.
Essentially Black Orpheus is a travelogue which acknowledges the existence and dominance of African culture in Brazil, a country not unlike America. Except African-Americans were virtually absent from mainstream American film, with the odd exception like Preminger's film never really catching fire. The soundtrack by Tom Jobim and Luiz Bonfá, based on Vinicius de Moraes' play Orfeu da Conceição, is as celebratory of the Carnaval tradition as the subject matter of Eurydice's increasingly dangerous flirtation with Death is dark. It clearly forges the way for Bossa nova to take hold so intensely in American jazz circles at the time, with the likes of Miles Davis, Stan Getz, and Frank Sinatra adapting pieces by (or even collaborating directly with) the Brazilian musical luminaries at the forefront of this musical movement. More importantly, the music serves a purpose contrasting the life-affirming milieu of the favelas with the underworld of deadening bureaucracy Orfeu (Breno Mello) encounters after Carnaval as he searches for Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn).
It is hard to overstate how influential Black Orpheus' look and feel was on the rather innocuous cinema of the years to come. This may date me, but I distinctly remember echoes of the film's Carnaval numbers in some of the background footage used to enhance the Eastern Airlines-sponsored If You Had Wings ride at Walt Disney World. The acknowledgement is a trifle to be sure, but it is important in noting how far the film's reach was into the mainstream, a feat rarely achieved by foreign films of any kind today. And while the amusement park ride ignored Brazil altogether, it did imbue its scenes of a Bahamian Junkanoo festival with the same brightly lit night photography one finds in Marcel Camus' Black Orpheus (speaking of Junkanoo, a scene depicting such a parade in the 1965 Bond film Thunderball also owes a tip of the hat to Jean Bourgoin's cinematography).
This update of the Greek myth to the favelas in Rio de Janeiro hasn't aged well if one looks at it from a realist's perspective, especially in light of the popularity of a recent Brazilian release, City of God (Cidade de Deus) (2002), a film which more closely captures the anguish of Rio's slum dwellers. This is to say, poor people are not happy people as much as Camus would like you to believe. That this was a Frenchman directing a largely black cast in a film which would go on to win the top prize in 1959's Cannes Film Festival must have felt a bit like a slap in the face to socially conscious Brazilians. A European outsider winning acclaim for his mischaracterization of Afro-Brazilians? But taken as an offbeat musical with a nod to social realism, Black Orpheus becomes quite a different proposition.